Sharks

The 2017-18 Sharks are a team that confounds the punditocracy

The 2017-18 Sharks are a team that confounds the punditocracy

The National Hockey League has stealthily crept up upon us and has finally landed, beginning its new season with four games, including a historically monumental matchup between the Philadelphia Flyers and San Jose Sharks.

And yes, that is sarcasm.

But it is also an apt opener because San Jose is a difficult team to figure under any circumstances. They are 15 months removed from their only Stanley Cup Final appearance but three months removed from a tepid first round chase-out by the Edmonton Oilers. They went from being a difficult counterpuncher to a good example of old-school hockey, skated into puddles by a younger, faster team just learning how good it can be.

Put another way, Edmonton hosts Calgary Wednesday in a game most hockey fans will find far more compelling.

The difference is that Edmonton has Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl and an army of other younger and more intrepid players, while the Sharks are making a more concerted but still difficult transition from a largely veteran team to a younger faster one. And that is trying to be created despite the fact that their most important players are north of 30.

Toward that end, the Sharks need bounce-back years from most of their forwards, given that they finished a dull 19th in offense and a disastrous 25th on the power play. Their defense has never been deeper or better based on its 2017 performance, but things have a way of bouncing up and down year to year in all hockey areas, so the Sharks need as much from Timo Meier and Tomas Hertl and Kevin Labanc as from Joe Pavelski and Joe Thornton and Logan Couture.

They also need a better season from goalie Martin Jones. Better, as in centerpiece – if San Jose’s offense does not improve, his reputation as a solid goalie will have to inch closer to Carey Price/Sergei Bobrovsky/Braden Holtby levels. Jones was fine enough last year, and clearly was the best player the Sharks had in their Edmonton series, but his save percentages (.918 and .912 as a Shark) need to improve above .920 if he is to become a more bonafide game-stealer.

Finally, the Sharks need to rekindle a fan base that has found more ways to skip games than attend them. The home-ice advantage they have always boasted improved last year after a few years of aggressive meh-itude (though they were 26th the year they got to the Final), and they got the typical Cup-Final bump, but the year before they dipped below 17,000 in attendance and the impression is that the fan base needs more stimulation than just opening the doors.

San Jose is a team that confounds the punditocracy – some think they have too much pride to fade from relevance, while others see the game changing without them. But after years of being the team everyone loved to pump up and then be disappointed by, they are now a blank slate for all involved, capable of much and yet little depending on how you choose to examine them.

Maybe they confuse even themselves.

Sharks comeback falls short in wild loss to Minnesota

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USATSI

Sharks comeback falls short in wild loss to Minnesota

BOX SCORE

SAN JOSE -- Nino Niederreiter scored 3:26 into overtime and the Minnesota Wild beat the San Jose Sharks 4-3 on Sunday night after squandering a three-goal lead.

Eric Staal scored twice and Ryan Murphy added a goal as the Wild extended their winning streak over the Sharks to four games.

Tomas Hertl tapped in a loose puck for San Jose with five minutes left in regulation to tie it at 3.

Hertl's goal followed a furious Sharks attack that Wild goalie Alex Stalock was able to fend off until a shot from Dylan DeMelo bounced off his shoulder pads and into no man's land just above the crease.

Brent Burns scored twice for the Sharks, who had won five of seven.

Stalock made 31 saves in his first appearance against his former team. Martin Jones stopped 20 shots for the Sharks.

The Wild, winners in four of their last five games, scored twice in the first 10 minutes. A series of sharp passes set up Murphy for a power-play goal just more than four minutes in. Staal sent a pass to Jason Zucker behind the net and he found Murphy for a 1-on-1 score.

Staal's first goal came after Ryan Suter recognized an advantage when Burns ran into Jones, knocking him off his feet. Suter delivered a pass to Staal, who easily fired it over Jones.

Early in the second period, Staal was able to push the puck through Jones' skates for a 3-0 Wild lead.

Burns got the Sharks on the scoreboard with a power-play goal during a two-man advantage late in the second period. Burns scored again on a power play with a slap shot from just inside the blue line midway through the third, his 12th multi-goal game.

NOTES: Sharks forward Jannik Hansen appeared in his 600th NHL game. ... Burns has six points in his last three games, including three goals. ... Murphy scored his first goal in 69 games. ... Staal had his second multi-goal effort in five games. ... Wild forward Jason Zucker has points in eight of his last nine games.

UP NEXT

Wild: Open a three-game homestand against the Calgary Flames on Tuesday.

Sharks: Begin a three-game road trip in Calgary on Thursday.

Logan Couture is an under-the-radar MVP candidate

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Logan Couture is an under-the-radar MVP candidate

After failing to score a point in the first three games of December, Sharks center Logan Couture has caught fire over the last two games. He’s scored four points since Thursday, three of which came in Saturday night’s blowout win over the Ottawa Senators.

There’s reason to believe his streak will reach a third game in Sunday night’s tilt with the Minnesota Wild: Couture’s scored 66 points in 84 career games on the second night of a back-to-back. That includes six in four such games this season, according to STATS.

San Jose has certainly needed that kind of form from Couture, who leads the team in goals (15) points (25), and game-winning goals (3). The 28-year-old has scored or assisted a third of the Sharks’ goals, putting a fifth of them in the back of the net himself.

It’s fairly easy to imagine where the Sharks would be without Couture. An already-anemic offense, the league’s third-worst, would still be sinking amidst the rising tide lifting all boats that is the NHL’s scoring boom.

San Jose, currently holding the third and final divisional playoff spot in the Pacific by a measly games-played tiebreaker, would not be anywhere close to postseason contention. Whether or not the Sharks, boasting one of the league’s thinnest farm systems, should welcome such a development is a discussion for another time.

Regardless, the Sharks’ season would be far uglier without him.

Couture likely doesn’t have the gaudy scoring totals to truly warrant a place in the Hart Trophy conversation. So far this season, however, few players have been more integral in their team’s success than him.

In addition to leading the the team in scoring, head coach Peter DeBoer’s relied upon Couture in every situation. He’s second among Sharks forwards in average total ice time, third among San Jose skaters in total power play ice time, and the third-most used forward on the penalty kill.

It’s unclear whether or not Couture can, or will, continue to shoulder this same offensive burden. His shooting percentage this season (21.7 percent) is likely unsustainable, nearly 10 points higher than his career average.

Yet, even as the Sharks appear to be rounding into form offensively, Couture’s largely driven the bus. San Jose’s scored 29 goals in their last nine games after scoring 46 in their first 19.

Couture’s still been responsible for 31 percent of the team’s goals over the last nine games, compared to about 35 percent in the first 19. That's a subtle decline, but an important one if the rest of the team can improve.

His scoring totals aren’t eye-popping compared to the league leaders, but Couture’s been as valuable for the Sharks as any player has for their team this season. If San Jose ultimately does make the postseason, it’ll be in no small part because of Couture’s early season efforts.